London - Chelsea have vowed to persist with the dashing football that has taken them four points clear in the Premier League, ahead of tonight’s Champions League trip to in-form Shakhtar Donetsk.
In a far cry from last season’s backs-to-the-wall success in the Champions League, Chelsea owe their early-season momentum to expansive, attacking football illuminated by individual flourishes.
The London club’s new face was in evidence again at White Hart Lane on Saturday, when they stormed back from 2-1 down against Tottenham Hotspur to win 4-2 and thereby galvanise their grip on first place.
And while Eden Hazard started the season with a bang and Oscar scored one of the most beautiful goals Stamford Bridge has seen, it is Juan Mata who has re-emerged as Chelsea’s true creative force.
Saturday’s victory was Chelsea’s first win at Spurs in the league since August 2005 and man-of-the-match Mata said such performances only made the squad more determined to pursue the philosophy that has taken root under Roberto Di Matteo.
“If you win and you can play as we played at Tottenham, that is the best way to play,” said the Spaniard, who scored twice and made a goal for Daniel Sturridge.
Chelsea’s 4-0 win at Danish debutants FC Nordsjaelland in their last outing put them top of Group E, but they lead Shakhtar by goal difference alone and cannot compete with the Ukrainian champions when it comes to recent form. Shakhtar’s 2-1 win over Illichivets Mariupol on Friday was their 21st consecutive league win - a Ukrainian Premier League record - and made them the first team from Ukraine to win their opening 12 games in a top-flight season.
Mircea Lucescu’s men are already 12 points clear of their nearest domestic challengers, FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, and they have managed to carry that rhythm into the European arena as well. Two-nil victors over Nordsjaelland in their opening game, they produced a superb performance to draw 1-1 at Juventus three weeks ago and might have taken all three points had an attempt by Willian not hit the bar in injury time.
Chelsea are understandably buoyed by their recent form, but they can barely afford a disappointing result against a team who have not lost in their four previous home games with English opposition.
Defeat for Chelsea, coupled with victory for Juventus against Nordsjaelland, would leave Di Matteo’s side in third place at the halfway point of the group, and with a taxing trip to Turin to play Juve still to come in November.
Nonetheless, Di Matteo expects his side to play without fear at Donetsk’s Donbass Arena, and says that players like Mata and summer signings Hazard and Oscar do not know how to play any other way.
Mata, in particular, has looked fresh in body and mind since his two-week break at the start of last month and he took his goal tally to six in five games in the win at Tottenham.
Of the players who started for Chelsea at White Hart Lane he was the only one who did not go away on international duty, having been dropped by Spain. His omission was interpreted as a warning from manager Vicente del Bosque that anyone asking to be “rested”, as Mata did last month, was taking a risk. It is a point of principle more easily made with the embarrassment of riches at Del Bosque’s disposal, but not one likely to bother Di Matteo.
Mata took a few days off, trained with the youth team and dazzled at Spurs, the first in a series of fixtures which seem set to define Chelsea’s season and with it the development of Di Matteo’s exciting team.
Di Matteo’s team are clear at the top of the Premier League and well placed in Europe but the English autumn is when promising campaigns often start to sour at Stamford Bridge.
Shakhtar Donetsk will provide a stern test in Ukraine, followed by two dates with Manchester United – in the Premier League and the Capital One Cup – while Manchester City visit Chelsea next month. It is a fixture crush that will examine a squad which still appears thin in places.
Chelsea have flair and fluency but they are not watertight in defence. However, they rose to the challenge of going behind at Tottenham by proving that their will to win, the chief characteristic of their years of success since Roman Abramovich took over, has not been entirely lost amid the desire to thrill.
It is a careful balance for Di Matteo but helped by the talent of the attacking trio of Hazard, Oscar and Mata who operate in support of Fernando Torres.
“The three behind the striker always try to play with movement, swapping positions and trying to assist,” said Mata. “We have to work at it in training but we are players who play like this naturally. As I understand football, I always want to play with the ball. If you can win and also play really well, it is the perfect way.”
Daily Mail and Sapa-AFP